It Pays to Be Prepared: Tape Your Magazines

Filming in a railroad yard for ‘To Live and Die in LA’.

by Jack Anderson

Most of the students I work with these days don’t have a clear idea why we tape the camera magazines after we load them. How much of the camera or magazine must be wrapped with tape? Every camera needs this? Why?

No, we’re not doing this to make it light-tight. If the magazine or camera leaks light, we’re in bigger trouble than tape can fix.

The tape serves a couple of purposes. First, it lets you know the magazine is loaded. It’s important to be able to tell what you’ve got at a glance in the hustle of production. Second, the color of the tape tells you the specific emulsion in the magazine. These days, with the profusion of film types, it’s likely that you will use more than one stock—at least, you’ll have one for interiors and one for exteriors. I happened to be lucky to work as an assistant long ago in the days of one stock only. We either used Kodak or Fuji. Today you might have three or four separate emulsions on the same film. So most assistants arbitrarily decide on separate colors to represent the different emulsions. Third, tape around the lid and on the latches prevents the accidental opening of a loaded magazine.

Let me tell you a little story about taping mags. I worked as a first camera assistant on To Live and Die in LA. Anyone will tell you that the director is a lunatic. He wants what he wants, he wants it when he wants it, and reality has no effect on his desires. We were shooting in a railroad yard, and the director wanted a shot of the train’s approach from the point of view of a worm. So we carefully measured the height of the train, dug a shallow hole for it, and placed the camera there with a remote switch. The placement was tricky, since the lens had to be high enough to see the train bearing down full frame, but low enough not to get hit. We had an Arri 2C, then the current model of the original Arriflex. Usually, you would use a Bell and Howell Eyemo in a crash box—1/4” of steel plate surrounding the camera—for something this risky. But of course, the shot had been dreamed up as the director sat on the set, so we hadn’t rented one. I used 200’ magazines on the Arri because they gave the camera its lowest profile. They’re rarely used on professional productions (400’ is a more useful size), but I had ordered three of them just in case we needed them. Being prepared like this, even though the production manager may object to the cost, is cheap insurance against the unexpected.

The camera was set up and we rolled it. Something went wrong with timing, and we needed take two. So I looked at the camera; it had rolled about sixty feet, meaning we had enough film in the magazine for another two takes, with a margin of safety. The director would have none of this. “Change the magazine, @$#%&!” Or, something to that effect, he roared. Well, you always want to be careful with film exposed on a stunt even when it’s not quite right. You never want to endanger the film because that might be the only time the stunt works. And although the situation was fairly well controlled, and although the train had cleared the camera with no problems, it made some sense to reload and to save the exposed film from any possible disaster.

So we reloaded, checked the framing and the height of the camera, and shot take two.

“I want another take.” Okay, I had a third magazine, loaded and ready, and we reloaded the camera, checked everything, and rolled again. “Let’s go again.”

Now, we were working in a rail yard. There’s no way to bring a camera truck into the yard. No roads, lots of train tracks; and the railroad company was insistent on its rules of safety. So the camera truck had to be parked on a street about half a mile from where we were shooting. I had sent the exposed film back to the truck to be downloaded. It took a while to negotiate the rocks and clinkers that are the surface of the train yard. And, it was half a mile away – and it takes a certain amount of time to download, wrap the film safely, reload, and get back to the set. So right now, we had used up our three loaded magazines, since the director insisted on a fresh load for every take.

But the director wanted to do another. For safety? Who knows? He’s the boss, and he gets what he wants.

And I had only three 200’ magazines. Each, now, with 140’ of fresh but unusable film left on them. And a loader in a truck a half a mile away, and a second assistant moving as fast as he could among the rails, rocks, and clinkers to get me a fresh magazine. Of course, I told the director we could certainly do take four, but it might be a short wait to get a fresh magazine.

”What the @$#%& is going on? Why don’t you guys have more @$#%& magazines loaded? You know, professionals have more than one magazine. I want that shot! Now! @$#%&!”

I gently explained about the three used magazines, about having to download them, about the half a mile of rails, rocks, and clinkers.

Well, I think I mentioned the director is crazy. So I mentioned that, of course, we had more magazines, but they were 400’ loads, and they were bigger than the 200’ loads, and the train had just barely cleared the 200-footer, so I had to wait for a newly loaded 200-foot mag.

“I don’t give a @$#%&! I want that @$#%& shot! Put the @$#%& 400-foot magazine on the @$#%&! camera.”

By now I gathered he didn’t much care what might happen to the camera. So I pulled out a 400-footer. Just for the heck of it, before I loaded it on to the camera, I took two-inch gaffer tape – strong, cloth-backed, black – and wrapped the magazine with three layers of it.

I threaded the camera, stood back, and we rolled.

Well, we got the shot, and the director was happy. We all also got to see the unique spectacle of a train hitting a camera and throwing it forty feet, where it landed lens down in the yard.

The lens, of course, was shattered – a mere five or ten thousand dollars. The camera was ruined, too – only about thirty thousand dollars. And the magazine had a 2” section peeled back as though a giant had used an oversize can opener on the magazine.

But the tape held! Despite the impact from the train, and despite its flight, and despite its rough landing, the tape had stretched, completely unbroken. We grabbed the magazine, covered it with someone’s coat, and hustled it to the darkroom. When the film came back from the lab, amazingly, the three layers of black tape turned out to be light-tight.

And that’s the shot in the film today, and that’s why you tape up magazines.

Jack Anderson is a thirty-year Hollywood veteran. He was DP for Always Say Goodbye, first-prize winner at the First Hollywood Film Festival. He did second-unit DP on Hook, Noises Off, and Mad About You. Short films he shot won prizes at the Los Angeles Short Film Festival, Crested Butte Reel Fest, Instant Films (LA), Waterfront Film Festival (Muskegon), and Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. He teaches Cinematography at California State University Long Beach.

Featured in StudentFilmmakers Magazine, October 2008 Edition.
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